Jake Edwards, president of the United Soccer League, came to San Antonio to attend San Antonio FC’s first match at Toyota Field, which ended in a 1-1 draw against the Swope Park Rangers. The crowd performance of 8,466 charged-up fans was as impressive as the home club’s players on the pitch. Edwards was impressed with San Antonio’s level of support for the new team and the new league.
“It’s great, you can really feel the buzz, from the airport, to walking around town today, to seeing everybody now tailgating outside and making their way in to the stadium. There’s a real atmosphere here,” Edwards said to media before San Antonio FC’s first home game. “This is something that you would see at the European and South American clubs and we always knew that would happen here in San Antonio.”
So far the team has won once, tied twice, and lost once (in that order) in its first four games. San Antonio FC will face the Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC in Colorado Springs on Saturday. Click here to view match schedule.
San Antonio FC’s startup from announcement to league play in the space of three months also impressed Edwards.
“They’ve done a terrific job,” he said. “There’s not many groups out there that could do this in such a short space of time. We would certainly not entertain that, but we felt confident in the group here, Bobby (Perez, Spurs Sports & Entertainment VP-corporate relations and general counsel) and then Tim Holt (San Antonio FC managing director).”
The Austin Aztex, on hiatus for the season, are the one notable opponent missing on San Antonio FC’s schedule this season, one the team would have liked to seen in the mix with the makings of a regional rivalry. Unfortunately, that hiatus could be extended. The Austin club has been unable to find an available stadium that allows alcohol sales. The league has pushed for such a move after the Austin club’s play at school district venues drew strong attendance, but without alcohol sales, the team’s revenues were among the lowest in the league.
“(Austin Aztex owners) are working hard, and are still looking for sites, working with the city, but it’s proving a challenge,” he said. “We (the USL) are going to give them time. It’s a great market and I think a great rivalry in the making here between San Antonio and Austin so we are going to give them more time.”
But for Edwards “it’s going very well,” he says. “Swope Park Rangers is a very strong team put together by Sporting KC, so these MLS sides have put together some very strong sides in our league. We’re seeing some great crowds and they’re building great identities around their second clubs. It’s having a very positive effect. The Real Monarchs (Real Salt Lake’s reserve team) had 14,000 to a game last year, our high mark for the season.”
Edwards acknowledged that some USL teams are not doing well. The Seattle Sounders 2, which San Antonio FC beat 3-0 in the season opener in Seattle, are struggling on and off the pitch.
“Some of them still have some work to do,” Edwards said. “Some teams are considering moving their (reserve) sides to get a better experience on the business side. Overall, we are very pleased there.”
That model is how San Antonio FC’s regional rival, Rio Grande Valley FC Toros have come in to the league. The team is owned by Houston Dynamo, but run in a completely separate market. Edwards is keeping an eye on the team.
“It’s going to be an interesting model to watch this year, this is about winning games and winning championships,” Edwards said. “Whether a team has an affiliation or not, that’s what they’re in the game to do, so if an affiliation helps that then that’s good. A lot of MLS teams are watching that (Rio Grande-Houston) model but we need to be mindful that those (reserve) teams are independent teams and they need to be successful both on and off the field.”
Much has been made by avid soccer fans of USL’s divisional status, sitting in the third tier, which puts it one lower on the pyramid than the North American Soccer League where the San Antonio Scorpions participated. That is something Edwards is working to change.
“It remains an important strategic initiative for the league. We’ve worked hard on that for the last 18 months,” he said. “The process continues, we’re hopeful to have everything wrapped up with the (United States Soccer) Federation and maybe have an answer in the next couple of months.”
San Antonio is one of six expansion sides in the USL this season, which has led to some concerns the league is expanding too quickly.
“We’re expanding rapidly, but also strategically,” Edwards said. “We want to build those regional rivalries … to allow visiting fans to take a couple of hour bus ride, so you don’t have to fly to every game. That helps on the cost side for the team as well … there are a number of markets we are already in discussion with for 2017 and 2018.”
Many hope that will include the return of the Austin Aztex, and the addition of a team in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, which would give San Antonio three in-state rivals to await at Toyota Field.
Top image: United Soccer League President Jake Edwards smiles during a press conference announcing San Antonio FC’s new coach on Jan. 7, 2016. Photo by Scott Ball.